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Surviving the pay-as-you-go Internet

By Andrew Mitchell A few years ago Internet Service Providers (ISPs) would occasionally attempt to bill their customers extra for exceeding their monthly allowable bandwidth, prompting those people to immediately cancel their subscriptions and enroll

By Andrew Mitchell

A few years ago Internet Service Providers (ISPs) would occasionally attempt to bill their customers extra for exceeding their monthly allowable bandwidth, prompting those people to immediately cancel their subscriptions and enroll with another ISP that wasn’t as stingy when it came to counting megabytes.

After a few years, the ISPs stopped trying. There are theoretical limits as to how much you are allowed to upload and download in a given month before extra charges start kicking in, but they are no longer enforced for most residential customers.

Give people an inch, however, and they’ll always take a mile. Between downloading movies from BitTorrent, viewing endless videos on YouTube, filling online photo albums on websites like Facebook and Flickr, playing online games, videoconferencing, and calling friends and family with VOIP, people are consuming more bandwidth than ever and the ISPs are struggling to cope during peak hours.

As Alaskan Senator and techno-coot Ted Stevens might remark, the Internet is like a series of tubes. There are limits to how much information can be crammed through the web at any given time, and when the amount of information being transferred creates bottlenecks it’s always been up to the ISPs to increase their carrying capacity to handle the load. Building and boosting Internet infrastructure is costly, and ISPs want to be able to recover at least some of those extra costs.

The question is how. One solution tabled in the U.S., and supported by Senator Stevens, would allow ISPs to bill the websites themselves for how much traffic they generate. That was an extremely unpopular suggestion because it favoured big media companies with deep pockets over smaller businesses, start-ups, and non-profits that rely on the web to get their message out. There is also a concern that the media companies that own the ISPs would use website billing as a pretense to shut down blogs and other sites over differences of political opinion or taste — an affront to the underlying concept of network neutrality that makes the web so democratic.

The other option would be for ISPs to come after their customers to recover costs, which is challenging because they don’t want to anger their fickle customers, and the ISPs could find themselves drawn into a price war that costs them more money in the long run.

There are also regulatory bodies, like the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunication Commission (CRTC), that guard against monopolies and price gouging.

Still, with Internet use exploding and ISPs not benefiting from the increase in use, something has to give.

Last week Canada’s biggest ISPs, Bell and Telus, made the case that Internet use grown 30 per cent in three years, while the amount of bandwidth taken up per user has effectively doubled. Meeting that demand means building more fibre optic networks, installing more switches and servers, and more staff to ensure the network runs smoothly. As a result they would like to see people charged for how much they use, rather than charging them a flat fee with some never used leeway to charge extra when their customers go over the limit.

However, charging people for how much they use creates a few of its own issues. For one thing, ISPs would have to get permission from the CRTC to change the way they bill their customers, something that could be slow and ultimately futile. Secondly, they have to have the participation of all ISPs to go forward because if one company decides to bow out then the rest would have to relent and go back to the current situation. Thirdly, people who use less bandwidth are going to expect to be billed less, or to have unused bandwidth carried over from month to month the same way minutes are transferred with some cell phone plans.

I don’t expect people to feel too bad for the ISPs, given the fact that a lot of them are raking in record profits these days — despite the extra expense of growing and maintaining their networks. But I don’t want the ISPs to lobby for the wrong kind of remedy either, crushing network neutrality or switching over completely to a pay-as-you-go system.

The solution will likely involve some from of graduated billing that would make web use cheaper for the majority of people who just use the web occasionally for e-mail and web surfing, and extra charges for people who exceed those preset limits. E-mail alerts could inform you when you’re closing in on another tier of billing, giving people the option of waiting out the month or paying the fee.

It would add expense to people who download movies and video games, forcing the companies offering those downloads to lower their prices to keep sales moving, while also reducing pirated movie and music downloads. Since media companies and ISPs are already in bed together, ISPs could also overlook or discount bandwidth from their affiliated media sites — if they can find a way to do that without attracting anti-competition legal challenges from their rivals.

Whatever the decision, I doubt things will be allowed to continue the way they are for much longer. I only hope that the CRTC consults with the public as well as the ISPs before making a decision.